A Research Assistant Guide
Welcome! This guide was designed for Boise State University students who are interested in becoming a Research Assistant, or who have already applied and want to learn more. The elements within this document will allow you, the prospective student, to better understand the duties required by this position. The authors aimed to provide an explanatory foundation of the position’s expectations and responsibilities, as well as its requirements for the application process in order to help you be successful. We, the authors, hope this will be a valuable resource throughout your experience.
There are many universal requirements expected of students in the position of Research Assistant (RA). Research Assistants are required to participate in the entire research process. Tasks can include, but are not limited to; planning, analyzing, executing, and presenting a group research project. Duties may involve detailed organization and review of scientific literature, library work, data collection and entry, writing reports or manuscripts, management, analyses, recruiting participants, and presentation of findings (Pollon, Herbert, Chahine & Falenchuk, 2013). A Research Assistant is to be part of a collaborative effort, and the ability to work well with others is imperative.
Skills such as communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution are very important for the best possible outcome to be achieved (Pollon et al., 2013). Commitment to an assistant position is time consuming, and the student is expected to participate for two full semesters. Some prior courses in field research may be required for Research Assistant applicants, as firsthand knowledge and experience would certainly be advantageous (Evans, Rintala, Guthrie, & Raines, 1981). Selection of assistants is conducted through an extensive application and interview process. The application indicates the applicant’s GPA, prior experience, goals, and interests. Screened applicants then participate in an interview with the researcher to further determine if they are qualified (Lechago, Love, & Carr, 2009). With assistance from research studies as well as former and current Research Assistants, this guide sets forth ideas and strategies that may be beneficial to current and future applicants.
Note: This guide is a product of the Fall 2018 PSYC 487 Capstone: History and Systems of Psychology course. The Department of Psychological Science is grateful to the student named below who created this guide as part of a consultation group class project.
Sultan Alanazi, Rachel Crippa, Devin Gutierrez, Christine Lee, Ashley Potzernitz, and Jade Tyler
Students should have a strong passing grade in a research methods course (Lechago et al., 2009). Students are also recommended to be currently enrolled in or have already have passed an upper level psychology course in field research (Evans et al., 1981). Such a course provides students with the opportunity to be trained for and participate in ongoing research by conducting a study of their own with the guidance of their professor. This course, if offered at the university, allows students to acquire field experiences and learn basic information so that they may become familiar with the discipline and required commitments of such a position beforehand (Evans et al., 1981). Undergraduate students who are involved in research opportunities outside of the classroom tend to have higher grade point averages (Pawlow & Meinz, 2017). Participants in undergraduate research should have knowledge of the major, as well as knowledge of statistics and methodology, critical thinking and writing skills, and technology skills regarding SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and PowerPoint (Pawlow & Meinz, 2017).
According to Evans et al. (1981), undergraduate Research Assistants are primarily selected from students registered in an upper level undergraduate psychology course in research. Students who are participating in the research course frequently express a desire to pursue this position. Those who meet the criteria can enroll in a special problems course with the principal researcher, usually for three credit hours (Evans et al., 1981). It is preferable that students become Research Assistants for course credit, as opposed to a volunteer position: volunteers are more likely to leave a project before completion for other experiences, whereas registering for credit ensures a pre-established and set time commitment (Lechago et al., 2009).
Students interested in becoming a Research Assistant should first complete an application (Lechago et al., 2009). Applications may ask students to describe prior experience, GPA, and professional goals or interests. Professionalism of students may be indicated in the degree to which their application is thoroughly completed and their time of submission in relation to the due date. Researchers will then screen applicants and set up a face-to-face interview with the most seemingly qualified students. Students should exhibit professional behavior, such as arriving on time, avoiding colloquial language, and dressing appropriately. A researcher will likely discuss the following with the student: major status, interest in graduate school and within the field of psychology in general, previous experience (especially in relation to teamwork), information about and questions regarding the specific study, reasons for wanting to be an assistant, and schedule availability. An additional or follow-up interview may be necessary (Lechago et al., 2009).
Responsibilities & Expectations
When becoming a Research Assistant, there are many responsibilities and expectations required of the student. A student’s dedicated involvement is essential toward the execution of research (Lechago et al., 2009).
Research Assistants in the Department of Psychological Science are involved in several assignments, but commonly assist faculty with literature reviews, experimental design, data collection, entry analysis and interpretation, and summarizing results in both oral and written presentations (Pawlow & Meinz, 2017). RA duties may also include mathematical calculations, implementation of working variables, interaction with participants and professionals, development of data sheets, official statistical reports, and research materials, proficient use of SPSS software (see page 10), and problem-solving research difficulties (Lechago et al., 2009).
Many responsibilities of a Research Assistant require them to be self-directed and collaborative team members (Pollon et al., 2013). The task requirements often involve working efficiently in a group, utilizing other members’ skills, critical thinking, and managing time effectively. An important expectation of RAs is to obtain optimal performance (Lechago et al., 2009). A recommendation is for Research Assistants to be trained on their primary duties and to reach a predetermined proficiency standard for skill areas. Feedback will be given to students throughout their experience, which will allow them to improve their performance. The responsibilities and expectations will prepare an RA to become a contributing member and expand their opportunities, which will be beneficial toward graduate school and/or their professional career (Pollon et al., 2013).
Undergraduates gain critical skills through learning about the research process firsthand and by working closely with faculty members and other students. They have the opportunity to earn letters of recommendation from their research professor by establishing a strong professional relationship and demonstrating proficient work (Lechago et al., 2009).
Benefits & Skills
When becoming a Research Assistant, many skills and benefits are attributed toward personal development and preparation for graduate school and/or bachelor degree level careers (Landrum & Nelsen, 2002). The activities an RA participates in may consist of involvement in creating research studies, arranging literature reviews, analyzing data and qualitative/quantitative analyses, managing interviews, recruiting participants, evaluating programs, writing research reports and ethics applications, and presenting at conferences (Pollon et al., 2013).
Involvement in these activities allow a Research Assistant to build upon their personal development, interpersonal, technical skills. The skills attributed toward personal development consist of critical and independent thinking, improved organization, an increased knowledge of statistics, and developing an identity as a researcher (Landrum & Nelsen, 2002). Attainable interpersonal skills may include teamwork, leadership, conflict resolution, time-management, collaboration, public speaking, and becoming more self-directed and self-confident. Throughout the Research Assistant experience, many students acquire technical skills that can be useful toward graduate school and/or research related careers. According to Hutchinson and Moran (2005), these skills consist of improvement in writing, literature reviews, computer literacy, sampling and data collection techniques, data recording methods, team member collaboration, report writing processes, ethical research conduct, and project management.
Professors often note a lack of successful research skills for Research Assistants in the following areas: searching, reviewing and synthesizing literature, working with data, and SPSS (Carter, Narendorf, Small, Berger Cardoso, Wagner, & Jennings, 2016). Carter et al. (2016) suggest that assistant professors select students who demonstrate proficiency in these areas during the application process. Furthermore, training should include improving these skills to increase student ability and efficiency, as well as professor satisfaction. Additionally, Pawlow and Meinz (2017) found that undergraduates who were Research Assistants had overall higher retention rates, grade point averages, graduation rates, and rates of enrollment and acceptance into graduate programs.
Advice & Insight from an RA
What did you wish you knew before you started your RA position?
“I wish I knew how difficult it can be to find participants willing to be a part of your study. It is hard to get the word out to students on campus and make them interested.”
How did your professor help prepare you to start this position?
“My professor gave me articles and documents that explained the background of our study. This allowed me to become more educated about what other people have done previously and how our new study will build off of it. The professor is always there to give us suggestions and make sure that we aren’t forgetting something important.”
Did your professor provide you with any tools to help you learn the programs or become familiar with other applications you are using?
“Yes, my professor shared a document with me that included all of the programs and tests that we would be using for our study. It explained how to use the programs and the significance of using them in our study. She later showed us in person how to use them to make us more familiar with them. However, another RA that is in charge of the study answered more of my questions as she was the one that picked the programs.”
What advice would you give other students who are interested in being an RA?
“Meet with your academic advisor and ask them questions about what you need to do to prepare yourself to be an RA and what it consists Being an RA is a time commitment and you will need to manage your time well and put a lot of effort in.”
Anything else you think would be helpful to know or would like to share?
“If students are interested to take on an RA position, I would tell them to go for it! It’s a great experience to take on during your undergraduate program. It will allow you to get hands on experience on what you have learned in your previous classes and it will help you decide if doing research is something you would like to pursue for graduate school or in your career. Even finding out that you don’t like doing research is completely okay and beneficial to learn during your undergraduate program.”
(M. Juarez, Personal Communication, November 15, 2018)
- Bakeman, R., & Quera, V. (2011). Sequential analysis and observational methods for the behavioral sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139017343
- Carter Narendorf, S., Small, E., Berger Cardoso, J. A., Wagner, R. W., & Jennings, S. W. (2016). Managing and mentoring: Experiences of assistant professors in working with research assistants. Social Work Research, 40. doi:10.1093/swr/svv037
- Evans, R. I., Rintala, D. H., Guthrie, T. J., & Raines, B. E. (1981). Recruiting and training undergraduate psychology research assistants for longitudinal field investigations. Teaching of Psychology, 8. Retrieved from http://libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=aph&AN=6803012&site=ehost-live
- Hutchinson, T., & Moran, J. (2005). The use of research assistants in law faculties: Balancing cost effectiveness and reciprocity. Proceedings Faculty of Law Research Group. Retrieved from https://eprints.qut.edu.au/2725/1/2725.pdf
- Landrum, R. E., & Nelsen, L. R. (2002). The undergraduate research assistantship: An analysis of the benefits. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 15-19. Retrieved from http://libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=aph&AN=5878279&site=ehost-live
- Lechago, S. A., Love, J. R., & Carr, J. E. (2009). Recommendations for recruiting and managing undergraduate research assistants. The Behavior Therapist, 32. Retrieved from http://libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=psyh&AN=2009-18088-002&site=ehost-live
- Pawlow, L. A., & Meinz, E. J. (2017). Characteristics of psychology students who serve as research assistants. College Student Journal, 51. Retrieved from http://libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=psyh&AN=2018-00753-009&site=ehost-live
- Pollon, D. E., Herbert, M., Chahine, S., & Falenchuk, O. (2013). From research assistant to professional research assistance: Research consulting as a form of research practice. Journal of Research Practice, 9. Retrieved from http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/348/313